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Writer Walter Kirn, on a 'Mission to America'

Oct 19, 2005 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Editor and writer Walter Kirn's latest novel, Mission to America, is about a fictional quasi-religious cult, the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, who are looking for new converts to help the group survive.

The topic is rooted in Kirn's personal experience. When he was 12, his family converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after missionaries knocked on their door. Kirn remained a Mormon for several years.

In addition to his new book, a movie based on Kirn's novel Thumbsucker is in theaters now. Kirn, who lives in Montana, is also the author of the novels She Needed Me and Up in the Air. He serves as the literary editor for GQ and is also a contributing editor to Time and Vanity Fair.

Read an Excerpt from 'Mission to America':

ONE

Partly we did it out of pity. We felt sorry for people who didn't know what we knew. By reading their newspapers in our village library and questioning the occasional lost hiker or adventurous dirt-road motorist, we realized as never before that life out there had become strident, disheartening and harsh while life back here, back home in Bluff, Montana, remained harmonious and sweet. But we also had selfish reasons for what we did. Over the years we'd come to understand that there was something we needed from the outsiders, without which our charmed little world might not survive. We needed new blood. We needed wives and mothers. We needed a few brown eyes among our offspring, more dark curly hair, and less inherited color blindness. We needed to stir our lumpy hard old stock until it was soft enough to pour again. And so, for the first time since we came together one hundred and forty-seven-years earlier, and in violation of our traditions of silence, modesty, and isolation, we gathered a party to go down out of the hills and mount, at long last, a mission to America.

The strange disturbed place needed help, and so did we.

Our wisdom for their vigor. We hoped to trade.

We were the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles and I am Mason Plato LaVerle. I won't start by recounting all of our history; it will trickle out. We approved, that's the main thing. We approved abundantly. We approved of the Prince of Flocks, whom others call Christ, and of our God of Gods, the-All-in-One, but we also approved of a host of other divinities, majestic and humble, familiar and obscure, from tricky Old Coyote, the Hopi spirit, to dainty Lady Vegetalis, a garden sylph of cloudy origins. We approved of diverse ideas and teachings as well, embracing the Golden Rule, Ten Commandments, the Hindu law of Karma, and our very own Perpetuity of Essence, which was easy to state but hard to comprehend. In the words of the Seeress, our aging leader, who spoke every week for three hours from her sunporch, propped in a wheelchair between two folded sheepskins and waving a quartz-tipped cedar cane for emphasis, Death does not end us, Birth does not begin us, and Life does not corrupt us. We stream on forever through the Etheric Flux, indestructible channels of vitality.

The doctrines we were best known for among outsiders — particularly in our first two decades, when the newspaper writers from the great cities still found our movement exotic and picturesque —related to health and bodily well-being. Edenic Nutritional Science, as we called it, was a system of eating and elimination that the inscrutable All-in-One took from Earth in the days of Zoroaster and finally restored in 1889 when the disembodied Discourser spoke to the Crow tribe's Little Red Elk, who corresponded with us through coded letters smuggled from his people's place of banishment near southern Montana's Bighorn River. Food, for Apostles, was more than physical sustenance; it was emotion materialized, hardened spirit, and its ingestion, absorption, and expulsion mirrored the deepest patterns of the universe. ENS is a subject for later on, though. First I should describe the situation that we found ourselves in a couple of years ago.

We'd gone without publicity for so long that outsiders had forgotten we existed. Then, the spring that I turned twenty-four, a handsome young AFA rancher named Ennis Lauer came from behind in the final round of Grit!, a nationally televised endurance contest, to beat out a Kansas federal prison guard for the top prize of half a million dollars. Quiet cunning bested boastful brawn as Lauer, in the program's closing challenge, lashed together a raft of willow branches to float six hundred pounds of cinder blocks to the finish line thirty miles away. The prison guard, who'd built a crude board sled with a harness that tied around his chest, still hadn't arrived when Lauer received the trophy and uttered his memorable five-word victory speech. "It wasn't me, but gravity."

Our leaders weren't pleased when Lauer joined the contest, but all was forgiven when he took the cup, becoming our movement's first celebrity since Francis Blair Howell, the presidential candidate who won one percent of the vote in 1960 by backing a total tax exemption for women. Lauer's fame was a thrill, for our men and boys especially, who'd grown up dominated by the Seeress and her white-haired quartet of female counselors. Now we had a hero who wore trousers. With his prize money, he erected a hillside mansion, the largest private structure in all of Bluff. It cantilevered out over downtown and cast a vast afternoon shadow over Venus Street that some people grumped and grouched about at first, until the Seeress taught them to regard it as a fortuitous giant public sundial.

Lauer had a manner and a bearing that enchanted photographers — a dreamy potency, detached yet fierce, forged by hard field work but also by meditation — and this led to a steady round of articles in newspapers from Portland to New Orleans. The Strongman Mystic of the Rockies, a hybrid of Atlas and Nostradamus. He bolstered his fame by publishing a calendar showing him in a corral among his stock with rolled-up sleeves, a half-unbuttoned work shirt, and mineral-oil perspiration on his chest (a stratagem that the Seeress reproached him for in a lengthy sermon on Illusion). The calendar sold three hundred thousand copies, helped by a story on a national news show, and Lauer, still smarting from his public scolding, devoted the funds to a spiritual effort he named the Apple.

The Initiative commenced in early June on the spacious third floor of Lauer's mansion, which he'd built in part as a community conference room to supplement the decrepit Celestial Hall. Through its tall picture windows I could see my town. It didn't resemble ordinary towns because it had almost no commercial district. Bluff's center had burned in 1965 when a fire surged down through a canyon to our west and overwhelmed our volunteer fire department, which refused all assistance from neighboring departments as well as the hated U.S. Forest Service, whom we'd been fighting in court for seven years for rights to the outflow of a thermal spring that heated the greenhouses where we grew our herbs. Not much was lost, though, just a hardware store, a welding garage, and a ladies clothing shop. Bluff operated then, to some degree, on a modified barter system called the Virtue Code, which assigned economic values to good deeds as well as to more conventional products and services. Cash was also honored for most transactions, but the co-op warehouse that stocked our food and sundries ran exclusively on Virtue Coupons. They were larger than dollars, lavender not green, and the picture inside the central oval seal was of a mourning dove sunning on a branch. Every couple of years a tax agent from Helena would storm through Bluff with armed guards and a black car and confiscate a portion of our currency, but it took only days for our printers to replace it, refining its design each time they did and adding more lines of texture to the dove's feathers.

Attendance at the Initiative's first seminar was by invitation only. My father, a Mineral County deputy sheriff who only arrested people when he felt threatened by them, and my mother, who assisted the Seeress with various clerical and domestic chores, cautioned me when I was summoned that Lauer's views had yet to be sanctioned by the leadership and therefore couldn't be discussed in public. Still, they said it was crucial that I go.

"Mr. Lauer will make you privy to certain hard truths that perhaps you'd prefer not to know," my mother said, "but which wise AFAs must no longer turn away from." Unlike my father, my mother took pleasure in speech and stressed the seams and spaces between words. "Whatever he may require you to do, though, be confident you have our blessing. If we lose you, we lose you. 'What should be, is.' "

"Lose me how?" I asked.

My father seemed pained and got up and left the kitchen, not always the strongest of men when feelings threatened. The gun he carried for work had never looked right on him. It would have looked more appropriate on my mother.

"Lose you to their fine phantasms," she said.

The conference room held five men besides myself, none of them over thirty and all unmarried. Lauer, who'd gotten his hands on a projector during one of the paid outside appearances where he performed feats of strength for business audiences and touted his notion of Etheric Stamina, conducted a forty-minute presentation on our movements prospects in the next decades. He explained that unless we introduced new bloodlines into our active breeding pool, Bluff faced a so-called "biological sunset" that would enfeeble us in the near future and was, in fact, already causing harm. A hush settled over the room. We coughed and fidgeged. We knew all too vividly what Lauer meant. There were children in town who didn't seem quite right, who still couldn't read at nine and ten years old and who sat out the sports and games we'd played at their age because of sore joints and other vague complaints. The young man sitting next to me, Elias Stark, had a little nephew of twelve, I'd heard, who'd spent several months at a costly Seattle clinic learning to synchronize, for the first time, the movements of his left hand and his right eye.

"I'm going to speak sharply and plainly," Lauer said. "Someday our descendants will all be idiots. And there won't be enough of them, in any case. Our young ladies just aren't producing like they used to, and they were never prolific to begin with. In a way that's a tribute to their development. It means they enjoy the freedom to say 'no.' But there are limits, and soon we'll reach those limits."

Lauer left it there. We broke for lunch. We grazed on a buffet of local staples: thin-sliced antelope sausage on sprouted black rye, smoked rainbow trout preserved in cider vinegar, squash relish, chopped barley salad, and clover tea. No salt on anything, but quantities of pepper, cold-stone ground to protect its volatile oils. Pepper aroused the intestines, it sped their labors. Disease begins in the gut, the duodenum, and death is a matter of sluggish peristalsis — that's the great key to Edenic Nutritional Science. Our bowels should work ceaselessly, not just at intervals.

Lauer took me aside after the meal and led me into an office off the conference room decorated with framed photographs that showed him shaking hands with famous men, including Montana's Democratic senator and a champion Negro golfer with dyed red hair. Lauer was a new and intimidating type for me, clothed and turned out in a way I'd never encountered. His shoes were a cross between tennis shoes and dress shoes, fastened by Velcro straps instead of laces; his watch had a small inner dial that showed the moon phase; and he wore cologne in a town where scents were frowned upon because of their effect on certain glands involved in the metabolism of starch. It wasn't a light scent, either — all musk and smoke. It set off a drip of thick mucus behind my tonsils.

"I've been authorized by a select committee," he said, "to recruit volunteers for an historic undertaking meant to address the concerns we've just discussed. I asked around some. Your name kept coming up. I hear you speak well."

"Thank you."

"Is it true?"

"I guess."

"Not very promising: 'I guess.' Impress me, Mason. Turn a fancy phrase."

"Just out of the blue, that's hard to do," I said.

"I know it is. It's impossible. I'm teasing. Get used to being teased by me."

I nodded.

"I'm playful because I'm passionate," he said.

Lauer knew mind tricks, I learned that afternoon, and once he finished describing the mission itself, which he did without much color or expression — nine months on the road, three teams of two men each, and weekly reports to be filed with his office — he switched to the subject of Neuro-Dynamic Salesmanship, which was the topic he really seemed to care about. He told me he'd learned it from a Phoenix businessman who'd earned almost eight million dollars in one year selling therapeutic car-seat covers impregnated with ionized powdered copper. He was already using its principles on me, he said.

"Right now," he revealed, "you're in a waking trance. You'll notice that your breathing matches mine and I'm guiding your eye movements in specific patterns. I've made a request that you haven't yet agreed to, but the truth is, right now, you're powerless to resist me. Do you see how your feet are pointing?"

I looked down. My feet didn't seem to be pointing anywhere special.

"That particular posture is always a 'yes.' Don't worry, you'll learn to spot it for yourself someday. But say the word anyway."

"Yes?"

"Good man," said Lauer. "You need to know that I'm funding this effort privately, which gives me a personal stake in the results. Money is going to be tight, no way around it, but if you budget wisely, and you sacrifice, you ought to do well. If you don't, we might be finished here. We're down to less than nine hundred active members. And that's the Church's figure. I think it's half that."

I'd never counted us. I had no idea.

"I suspect it's not much more than four. Which I find tragic."

After allowing this figure to sink in some, Lauer reached through the space between us and touched my knee. "Our big worry, of course, is that you won't come back once you've had a long sweet drink of freedom. So think about it. Think realistically. Not that what they offer out there is freedom."

"What is it that they offer?" I said.

"Death."

I asked him if he was referring to their guns.

"Their guns are the least of their problems," Lauer said. "Look at what they dump into their gullets. They eat death. They defecate death. It's all they know. And when they sleep, they dream of death. You'll see it. You'll see how it saturates their souls. Just walk into one of their toy stores and count the death dolls."

I tried to imagine what such things looked like. "Skeleton figures?" I asked.

"They might as well be. Emaciated elongated young women with barely enough flesh to cover their skulls but with breasts the size of a nursing mother of twins. The Sphynx and the Griffin are more convincing creatures."

He allowed me to sit with these images for a moment before asking me, eye to eye, with an expression that I sensed he'd borrowed from the Phoenix millionaire, if I'd be comfortable doing whatever was necessary to meet potential mates during my mission and persuade one of them to accompany me back home. I wasn't exactly certain what he meant, but I felt I understood his general point: Would I devote my whole body to the task? And, further, was there someone here in Bluff, someone whom I was pledged to or had feelings for, who might prevent me from me going forth wholeheartedly?

Excerpted from Mission to America by Walter Kirn; Copyright 2005 by Walter Kirn. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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